ACLU Sues DC For Police Response To Mental Health Crises, Citing Disability Rights

The lawsuit alleges that sending police instead of mental health professionals as the default first responders for mental health emergencies violates federal disability law.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on Thursday on behalf of a Washington, D.C., nonprofit alleging that the city’s reliance on police response in mental health emergencies is a violation of federal disability law.

According to the lawsuit, the Washington police department routinely dispatches armed officers to respond to 911 calls involving mental health crises instead of sending mental health professionals who are trained to handle these emergencies.

The suit alleges that the practice violates the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, and the Rehabilitation Act, as it “denies people with mental health disabilities the benefits of the District’s emergency response programs and services and fails to provide them equal access to those services.”

The suit claims that people with mental health disabilities and those experiencing mental health crises are not receiving the same resources as those experiencing physical health crises, despite an equal opportunity obligation under the ADA. Only 44 community response team staffers have been hired to handle mental health emergencies, compared to the 1,600 emergency medical technicians hired to handle physical health emergencies, according to the suit.

The Office of the Attorney General for D.C. declined to comment. The Metropolitan Police Department and Department of Behavioral Health did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit.

Nonprofit Says It’s Bearing The Cost

In June 2021, Washington launched a mental health emergency dispatch program in partnership with the Office of Unified Communications and the Department of Behavioral Health to divert 911 calls to mental health specialists. Under the program, community response teams of mental health clinicians and certified peer support specialists would be dispatched to address mental health emergencies, rather than police officers.

“This initiative strengthens the clinical response to all crisis calls for mental health care including those that come directly to [Department of Behavioral Health], as well as those through the 911 system to get people the best, most appropriate treatment and supports they need,” Department of Behavioral Health director Barbara J. Bazron said in a statement in 2021.

But according to the suit, the city has provided insufficient funding, training and coordination to support and staff community response teams, resulting in less than 1% of 911 mental health emergency calls getting a response from mental health professionals.

“More than just illogical and dangerous, D.C.’s emergency response system fails to provide the same level of care for people in mental health crises as for people in physical health crises,” Susan Mizner, director of the ACLU’s Disability Rights Program, said in a statement. “This is precisely the type of unequal treatment our disability rights laws are designed to protect against.”

“The most effective response to a mental health crisis is to provide empathy, support, and a calm, safe environment.”

- Tracy Knight, Bread for the City

This is not the first time the ACLU has called for improvements to Washington’s mental health crisis response. Following calls for additional resources in April, the Department of Behavioral Health said its staff would soon be working at the 911 call center. The department also told NBC Washington that it would continue to train police officers on how to handle mental health crises.

The plaintiff of the new lawsuit is Bread for the City, a nonprofit that focuses on providing food, health care, legal aid and social services to underserved communities in Washington. The law firm of Sheppard Mullin is representing the plaintiff along with the national ACLU and ACLU of D.C.

“The most effective response to a mental health crisis is to provide empathy, support, and a calm, safe environment,“ Tracy Knight, director at Bread for the City, said in a statement. “Although the District employs some mental health providers to respond to crises, it has not invested the resources needed or provided them the support necessary to be effective and widely deployed.”

Clients frequently have mental health crises at Bread for the City facilities, according to the lawsuit. To avoid calling 911, the nonprofit relies on staff to de-escalate the crisis, which has resulted in a loss of revenue, with funds spent on training and resources being diverted away from the nonprofit’s mission.

“If calling 911 resulted in mental health professionals responding promptly to a mental health crisis, Bread would be able to reroute significant resources back to its core programs,” the lawsuit reads.

The Push To Move Away From Police Response To Mental Health Crises

Experts have recommended that police not be the default response to mental health crises, as they are more likely to exacerbate the issue than alleviate it.

Studies reveal that police nationwide are 11.6 times more likely to use force against people with serious mental health disabilities than other individuals, and 16 times more likely to kill people with untreated mental health disabilities than other individuals.

“There are those who won’t call for crisis care because they’re afraid of what will happen if the police show up,” Alex Rifwald, a member of an alternate response team in Tennessee, told Knox News in May. “We really need a response that is not attached to police officers, because it has shown the presence of a police officer can escalate someone in crisis.”

For years, advocates have pushed for communities to create alternatives, such as crisis response teams, to deal with mental health crises instead of relying heavily on law enforcement

“We need to build community resources that can respond and take care of a crisis without having law enforcement involved. If we build the crisis response system, that is non-law enforcement, we will get more people connecting before it hits that level of danger,” Ron Bruno, executive director of Crisis Intervention Team International, a group that works to improve response to mental health crises, told NPR in 2020.

According to the new lawsuit, officers in Washington are taught to always be prepared to defend themselves from attack and to adopt a tactical mindset, but are not trained to adopt “a distinct, open, and non-threatening stance” when interacting with someone experiencing a mental health crisis.

A 2021 report from the DC Health Matter Collaborative, a coalition of local health providers, states that police officers undergo a training course that only covers a surface-level understanding of best practices for dealing with mental health.

“Police are not the right people to respond to someone experiencing a mental health crisis, and we should stop expecting them to be,” Ashika Verriest, a senior staff attorney with ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project, said in a statement. “As a matter of safety and equality, D.C. and communities across the country must invest in robust and appropriate crisis response, so that all our neighbors get the proper care they need.”

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